OPINION | Robyn Schnell: We are not bound by our past

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Although South African history is most often associated with racism, the history of our nation also includes precedents of peace, writes the author. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images
Although South African history is most often associated with racism, the history of our nation also includes precedents of peace, writes the author. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

While we cannot escape our violent past, we are also not bound to it, writes Robyn Schnell.


The International Day of Peace, also known simply as "Peace Day", falls on 21 September 2022. Established by the United Nations (UN) in 1981, Peace Day has been declared as a day dedicated to strengthening the ideals of peace. Every year, the UN invites all nations and people to commemorate the day to encourage people to cooperate and work together to maintain worldwide peace

In 2001, two decades after the first Peace Day, the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to use the day to declare a twenty-four hour cease-fire and non-violence for those countries currently engaged in active violence and combat. On 13 June 2022, the Mayor of Hiroshima and President of Mayors for Peace, Matsui Kazumi, published a statement titled, "100-Day Countdown Message for the International Day of Peace" in which he called for the end of "Russian aggression against Ukraine". Despite his insistence that worldwide peace is achievable with the steadfast collaboration of citizens from around the world, there has been no indication that the combat in the Ukraine will be paused on Peace Day.  


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To reinforce the ideals of Peace Day, the UN also established the Messengers of Peace programme in 1997. Through this programme the UN Secretary-General appoints celebrated individuals and personalities to lend their names, efforts and reputations to strive for a more peaceful world. There are currently fourteen Messengers of Peace who have been appointed due to their distinguished careers and reputations in fields of art, science, sports, literature, entertainment and other fields. The Messengers of Peace include education activist Malala Yousafzai, American actor Leonardo DiCaprio, musician Stevie Wonder and South African-born actress, Charlize Theron.

Each year, the UN choses a theme for the International Day of Peace. Past themes include "Climate Action for Peace" in 2019, "Shaping Peace Together" in 2020 and "Recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world" in 2021. The theme for 2022 is, "End racism. Build Peace". This year, the UN invites all people to join their efforts as they strive towards a world free of racism and racial discrimination. 

Peace in South Africa? 

This year’s Peace Day theme holds powerful significance for South Africans. Although South African history is most often associated with racism, the history of our nation also includes precedents of peace. The End Conscription Campaign (ECC), active during the 1980s, for example, used a variety of peaceful methods to resist mandatory service in the South African Defence Force (SADF) during apartheid. Another example is the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), established in 1991, to peacefully negotiate the end of apartheid and the birth of a new political order. The anti-apartheid struggle also included efforts to resist the regime peacefully. In addition to Albert Luthuli’s award in 1960, three of our nation's presidents were past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in the liberation struggle – Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk in 1993 and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994.

READ | ANALYSIS: International Peace Day: Guns still fire in Africa

Although the apartheid system was dismantled in 1994, South Africa is still a nation which is fighting racism. Unfortunately, the all too frequent attacks on foreigners, last year's incidents of looting and allegations of racism on and off sporting pitches show that discrimination - that is physically and verbally violent - is still prevalent across all aspects of South African life. 

While we cannot escape our violent past, we are also not bound to it!

Time for reflection 

On 21 September, as South Africans, we can remember our legacy of peace movements whilst respecting our current efforts to overcome racial discrimination. 

This year’s International Day of Peace is a time to commemorate the progress we, as global citizens, have made towards a peaceful and prosperous existence. Peace Day is also a time to examine what we as a nation can make towards building peace in our country and around the world. 

- Robyn Schnell is with the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria.

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